One day, when I was 8 years old, we heard gunshots down the street, which meant that soldiers were killing innocent civilians. Dad rushed in and said, ‘We need to leave right now’ and my parents ran around grabbing food and whatever they could lay their hands on. Of course I didn’t understand what was going on, but I could tell something was wrong, as there was this desperation to get out of the house as soon as possible. We fled to Ghana on foot and ended up in a refugee camp there.
In Togo, my dad had worked for a road building company and my mum had been a business woman. Although we were a large family of 11, we had everything we needed. As a result, it was very difficult to transition to living in a tent in a refugee camp, especially for my mum, as we went from having everything we needed to going for days with no food. Sometimes Mum would just sit there crying and I would wonder, ‘Why is this woman crying?’ I didn’t get it at the time, but now I am a parent myself, I understand how heartbreaking it must have been for her to not be able to afford a loaf of bread for her children.
At first, the school at the refugee camp was free, but after a while our parents were asked to pay our school fees, and unfortunately they couldn’t afford it. I still remember walking past on the day my classmates were taking their final exam. I stood there for ages, looking in, imagining myself taking my exam too.
We received monthly food rations but when we needed clothes and other things, we had to sell some of our food so that we could buy them. The hardest part about that was knowing we would have to prepare ourselves to starve until the next food ration was due.
If there was nothing to do, we often just walked around all day waiting for the sun to go down. It was a hopeless way of living, especially for a young person. But 5 years later we were relocated to another refugee camp where there were refugees from all over Africa, and I was so happy there, as I could finally go to school again.
We lived in that refugee camp for 9 years. During that time, we applied to come to Australia, but it was a long process. Unfortunately, only the six eldest siblings were finally approved for resettlement, as my father had had a stroke, and failed the medical examination.
It has been 11 years now and we are still trying to convince the immigration department to let the rest of the family come to Australia. One of the things that breaks my heart is that the moment you have that refugee tag on your neck, the most important decisions of your life are made by someone else.
When we came to Albury, there were not many Africans living there, so it was a bit of a shock for the locals to see us around. The Murray Refugee group took really good care of us but unfortunately we also experienced some racism. One day not long after we arrived, we went out for a walk, and someone threw a half empty bottle of beer at us from a car and yelled at us to go back to where the f**k we came from, which really scared us. And at my first job here, at an abattoir, they treated me so badly that when we had smoko, I would go lock myself in the toilet and cry.
It’s painful when we are treated badly. But when it happens, I say to myself, ‘Well I can’t really blame you’. It’s hard for people who haven’t undergone such an ordeal to be empathetic towards me. It’s hard for them to understand that if there were peace in my country, I wouldn’t have had to leave it. And it’s hard for them to imagine the guts it takes for someone to get up and say, ‘I need to leave this place this minute in order to stay alive.’
Over the years, I have learned not to focus on racism because I have been through so much to get to where I am and I am the kind of person who prefers to persevere regardless of the challenges I face.
I’ve had many jobs over the years, including working with refugee and migrant families, but I am currently living in Wagga Wagga doing a Bachelor of Stage and Screen, majoring in acting. I feel like whenever black people are shown on TV in Australia, it’s mostly when a charity organisation is begging for donations. So I think it would be good for people like us to be seen on TV doing something that normal people are doing for a change!
I might not be white and I might not have been born here in Australia, but I am an Australian citizen, and for the 11 years I have lived here, I have contributed to society. Sometimes people complain to me that their forefathers worked to develop this land and their tax money was used to bring us here.
That’s true, but it would be good to sometimes hear them say, ‘Yes, we brought you here, but you are doing well with your life, and we are glad to have you.’
Photographer: Hayley Kotzur @hayleykotzurphotography
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